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February 2013

Sede vacante

It's a strange feeling, isn't it? Different from when John Paul died, because the Church and the world are not preoccupied with funeral rites, obituaries, and so forth. I had felt somewhat detached from the whole thing until I read the words "I am no longer supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church." The official end was 8pm Vatican time, which was about an hour and a half ago now. 

Écrasez l'infâme, still?

The phrase, as you probably know, is the sentence Voltaire passed on the Catholic Church: crush the infamous thing. 

The Atlantic has been redesigned again, made thinner and flashier, with shorter pieces reduced even further. At the top of one of the pages devoted to these, there's a box labelled "A Very Short Book Excerpt." The excerpt consists of five sentences from Garry Wills's latest attack on the Church of which he still, oddly, remains a member: Why Priests? A Failed Tradition

Based on the excerpt, it's the typical odd skeptical-fundamentalist approach--it's not in the New Testament, therefore it's bogus. I know, who cares what Wills thinks? Not me. But it's interesting that The Atlantic  chose to print it. What do they care whether the Catholic Church calls its clergy "priests" or not? What do they care whether it has priests or ministers or rabbis or gurus?

Neither religion in general nor Christianity in particular gets much attention at all in this magazine, and when they do it's usually of an anthropological sort, with a bit of mild alarm or disgust thrown in when the latter appears. I have to suppose that it still vexes them that the Church continues to exist, or that it refuses to conform itself to the secular consensus. So now and then they're willing to give a platform to someone who claims to have evidence that it's a fraud. I guess this is of a piece with the typical hyped-up stories that appear around Christmas and Easter attacking some core Christian belief. 

Still, it's odd--why pick on this particular belief, which is mostly of consequence within the Church? I suppose it could be taken as a back-handed compliment, an indication that they do think the priesthood a different thing from, say, the Protestant clergy.

No doubt you have often wondered... I have, whether an object dropped through the upper surface of a bubble would also pierce the lower surface, or instead arrive at that location after the bubble had finished bursting and was no longer there.  Of course the result would vary with the size of the bubble etc., but this answers the question for a fairly typical case.


Seeing Love

From the pope's remarks concluding this year's Lenten retreat:

“I was reminded of the fact,” Benedict XVI said, “that the medieval theologians have translated the word 'logos' not only as 'verbum', but also as 'ars'. 'Verbum' and 'ars' are interchangeable. Only in the two together does the entire meaning of the word 'logos' appear for medieval theologians. The 'Logos' is not simply a mathematical reasoning, the 'Logos' has a heart. The 'Logos' is also love. Truth is beautiful. Truth and beauty go together. Beauty is the seal of truth.”

“And yet you, starting from the Psalms and from our everyday experience, have also strongly emphasized that the 'very beautiful' of the sixth day—expressed by the creator—is always challenged in this world by evil, suffering, and corruption. It almost seems that evil wants to permanently mar creation, to contradict God and to make His truth and His beauty unrecognisable. In a world that is also so marked by evil, the 'Logos', eternal beauty and eternal 'ars', should appear as the 'caput cruentatum'. The incarnate Son, the incarnate 'Logos' is crowned with a crown of thorns and, nevertheless, just that way, in this suffering figure of the Son of God, we begin to see the most profound beauty of our Creator and Redeemer. In the silence of the 'dark night' we can still hear the Word. Believing is nothing other than, in the darkness of the world, touching the hand of God and thus, in silence, listening to the Word, seeing Love.”

(via the Vatican Information Service)

The Choice

I'm not listening to music during Lent (except on Sunday!) so I won't be doing my usual weekend music post. I thought I'd take the time instead to go through some of the many photos I take and hardly have time to look at, much less post. Not that most of them are worth posting, but some are. The first one is a billboard that has been sitting by the main road on the south end of town for quite some time now.

Nothing 12-26-2012 4-12-04 PM 1200x900
I thought the word "nothing" was just intended to attract the attention of someone who might want to advertise on it. Then the little note at the lower left appeared. It is an odd contemporary small-town echo of a scene in one of Bergman's grimmer movies, maybe Persona, where a character murmurs "Ingenting...ingenting..."--"Nothing...nothing..."

Then there was this, which I posted once before. The word is painted on one of those mysterious little enclosures of electrical/mechanical equipment that one sees here and there and occasionally wonders about.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Several people have recommended this to me in the most enthusiastic terms possible, and as you probably know most critics seem to have loved it, and it's been nominated for, or received, a whole lot of awards. I watched it this past weekend, and although I'm not as taken with it as many apparently are, I did enjoy it. It's sweet and romantic, with a touch of fantasy, but it has muscle, too. It's set among some rather crazy people who live in "the Bathtub," a region of coastal Louisiana, and is principally about a little girl named Hushpuppy and her father. The performance of the actress who plays Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis, is pretty amazing. (No, I don't know how to pronounce that name). The trailer gives you a pretty good sense of it.  


Defining Conservatism

This is a follow-up to the discussion that followed on this post, and to a lesser extent on this one, about the definition of neo-conservatism and of conservatism in general. In a comment on the first one, Grumpy suggested that everyone read George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. As it happens, I own a copy of that book, but have not yet read it. So I decided to start. I haven't gotten very far, but in the introduction Nash discusses the question of defining conservatism in a way that I think is useful, so I'm going to post a somewhat lengthy excerpt from it. In the paragraph below, the emphasis is mine, and is my own view.

Because this is an examination of what I have labeled "conservatism" in the postwar period, readers may perhaps expect a definition: what is conservatism? For those who have examined the subject, this is a perennial question; many are the writers who have searched for the elusive answer. Such an a priori effort, I have concluded is misdirected. I doubt that there is any single, satisfactory, all-encompassing defintion of the complex phenomenon called conservatism, the content of which varies enormously with time and place. It may even be true that conservatism is inherently resistant to precise definition. Many right-wingers, in fact, have argued that conservatism by its very nature is not an elaborate ideology at all.

One of the few Internet conversations in which I've ever lost my temper occurred in this context: a Thomist insisted that if conservatives could not supply a rigorously specific definition, acceptable to the Thomist mind, of the word "conservatism," then the term must be devoid of meaning altogether, with the clear implication that those who used it were hopelessly irrational. (This was on the Caelum et Terra blog a few years ago; I don't remember the topic of the post that led to the discussion.) But there are many things in the world that do not have precise definitions, yet which undeniably exist, although if they attract the attention of intellectuals they may be the occasion of many arguments: What is jazz?, for instance, is a question that can only have a rough answer. Of these things, one can usually assert without too much fear of contradiction that a specific example is of the class being discussed, and another is not, but there are always debatable instances. It's not so much that no definition is possible, as that its boundaries will always be vague. Few would argue that Coltrane's Giant Steps is not jazz--but is Interstellar Space classifiable as jazz only because Coltrane performs it? Certainly there are many who have declared, on hearing the latter, "That's not jazz."

Debates about this sort of thing are fine and useful up to a point, but for my part I find extended terminological arguments tiresome, especially as they're inevitably inconclusive. It's important to remember that the terms involved are descriptive, not prescriptive. 

Attempts to define conservatism abstractly and universally or in terms of one particular set of historical circumstances have led many writers into a terminological thicket.

How shall we extricate ourselves? Great as is the temptation to construct a pattern of my own, I have deliberately refrained from what I believe to be a dubious enterprise. The subject of this book is conservatism as an intellectual movement in America, in a particular period. Not all conservatism; not conservatism as an illustration of an archetype derived, perhaps from a study of feudalism or the Middle Ages. Rather, conservatism at it existed, in a certain time and in a certain place. Conservatism identifiable as resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary, and profoundly subversive of what conservatives at the time deemed worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for.

That's good enough for me.

At some point, however, an insistent reader may still object to my use of the word "conservative." How, it may be asked, can you label someone a conservative when he was "actually" a nineteenth-century liberal?.... To these questions one answer, I hope, will suffice: I have designated various people as conservatives either because they called themselves conservatives or because others (who did call themselves conservatives) regarded them as part of their conservative intellectual movement. I have counted diverse people within the conservative fold because study shows that, existentially, they belonged to the American conservative ranks in the postwar period. Whatever our sense (or their sense) of the propriety of these alignments may be, that was the way it was.

A nicely pragmatic and empirical approach, which is appropriate, because to me those are characteristics of conservatism. Which is not to say that pragmatism and empiricism are its metaphysical principles: conservatism in itself does not necessarily contain a metaphysical principle, but assumes that the ultimate questions belong to another realm. That's one of the things that distinguishes it from progressivism which frequently, if only unconsciously, is a metaphysical principle. 

(I  wrote all the above last weekend, intending to add a note about neo-conservatism and then post it. But before I could do that, Monday morning arrived with the news of the pope's resignation.)

Neo-conservatism presents an example of the definitional problem. Twenty or thirty years ago there was a reasonable amount of agreement about what it meant, although I am not going to attempt to formulate a definition. At minimum, it was known to refer mainly to specific people--Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz among Jewish intellectuals, Michael Novak and George Weigel among Catholic,  I have never been able to see that it was fundamentally different from any already-existing form of conservatism: it only mixed those existing strains in somewhat different proportions. But for various reasons, including hostility from both the left and the right, it became in many circles a pejorative used so indiscriminately that it became almost meaningless, and sometimes a veiled expression of anti-Semitism. And it's harder than ever to distinguish it from conservatism in general. As Rob G maintained when this was last discussed, this can be taken to mean that neoconservatism has mostly replaced conservatism proper. I don't really agree with this, but either way the case for holding on to the term is weakened, precisely because of the original definitional problem. It's hard to complain that a definition has been tampered with if it was never clear in the first place.

So if I were Supreme Arbiter of Nomenclature, I would forbid its use except in reference to the original group. 

For millions of adherents to Actually Existing Conservatism (Rob's term), conservatism consists of three ideas: limited government, free markets, and a strong national defense. Is that neo or paleo or what? They don't care. There's a reason why Nash's book is about the conservative intellectual movement. AEC is not my idea of conservatism, but they don't care about that, either, and I just have to shrug and remind myself that it's a label to be worn lightly.


The Lion Sleeps Tonight: A History

Weekend Music

I guess anyone who's been in earshot of a radio very often over the past fifty years has heard The Tokens' 1960 hit version of this song. I remember seeing its name on an American Bandstand Top 10 list before I actually heard it, and being intrigued by the title. 


Some years later I learned that The Weavers, Pete Seeger's pop-folk group of the late '40s and '50s, had recorded it. It had some chart success and I think that's where The Tokens, or someone at their record company, heard it.


I had always assumed that the Weavers, or perhaps just Seeger, learned it from one of those field recordings that the folklorists of the early 20th century were always producing and discovering, the work of a collector who had gone into Africa for that purpose the way the Lomaxes had ventured into the American South. But it wasn't until last week, when I posted that Paul Simon/Ladysmith Black Mambazo tune, that Paul, in the comments, clued me in to its origin, via this very fascinating piece. The original recording--and it was a commercial product, not a folklorist's discovery--was made in South Africa, in 1939. Of course I had to hear it, so I went straightaway to YouTube, and, not too surprisingly, because everything seems to be on YouTube now, there it was. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds singing "Mbube" (you'll probably need to turn the volume up to hear it clearly):


I believe I hear a piano tinkling in the background there, though these voices hardly need any accompaniment. The article Paul provided tells the whole story of the song's recording, the money made from it, and where it went, which was not to Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, who were paid nothing beyond a very small recording fee. As the article notes, this unjust practice was standard at the time--American blues singers were treated similarly--and while this was clearly a rip-off, it was a practice that came into being when recorded music was still something of an afterthought to a performing career. 

Lastly, bringing the song full circle from American pop to its African roots, here are The Mint Juleps, an a cappella British group, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with an arrangement that brings together the commercial and folk variants.


 I absolutely love this clip. I guess I've watched it a dozen times over the years and it still delights me. It's from a 1990 PBS Great Performances show called Spike Lee & Co. Do It A Cappella. I taped the show when it was broadcast a couple of years later and we watched it several times with our children; it is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family. 

P.S. Here's the Wikipedia article on the song.